Sex, Booze, and Feminism

Widely used definitions of alcohol-enabled sexual assault wrongly conflate drunk sex and rape—and perpetuate a blatantly sexist double standard.

The subject of alcohol and sexual assault, particularly among college students, has generated much sound and fury recently. A few months ago, there was the outcry over Emily Yoffe’s article arguing that we should be more outspoken in warning young women that heavy drinking puts them at risk of rape. Now, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto is under heavy fire, accused of arguing that rape victims who are drunk are just as guilty as their rapists.

Taranto, whose past commentary includes blaming too much female education for the downfall of marriage, is not a particularly sympathetic figure when it comes to gender issues. But on this occasion, he’s getting a bum rap, and his column makes an important (and egregiously misinterpreted) point that needs to be made: A lot of current rhetoric wrongly conflates drunk sex and rape—and perpetuates a blatantly sexist double standard.

Certainly, if an intoxicated woman is raped while unconscious or barely conscious, she is not, whatever her errors of judgment, at fault in the attack. But widely used definitions of alcohol-enabled sexual assault, in both activist rhetoric and official policy, cover a far broader range of far more ambiguous situations.

Take the frequent claim, recently repeated by President Obama, that one in five female college students is sexually assaulted. This estimate comes from the Campus Sexual Assault Study (PDF), in which over 5,000 college women were surveyed in 2005-2007. About 70 percent of the incidents classified as sexual assaults were based on women’s self-reports of sexual contact while “unable to provide consent or stop what was happening” due to being “passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep.” Yet only a quarter of these women—37 percent when penetration was involved—believed they had been raped. (These were, remember, college students in an age of widespread awareness of acquaintance rape.) Two-thirds didn’t regard the incident as serious enough to report.

There can be no debate about the meaning of “passed out”; even “incapacitated” is fairly straightforward. But “unable to consent due to being drunk” could mean very different things—from being subjected to sexual acts while in an alcoholic stupor to waking up with hazy recollections of doing sexual things one wouldn’t have done when sober.

There is a very real phenomenon of alcohol-facilitated rapes by serial predators—the kind identified by University of Massachusetts psychologist David Lisak (PDF)—who intentionally target severely intoxicated women, often while remaining sober themselves. But it is equally true that, in today’s climate, many cases labeled as sexual assault involve two young people who are drunk and reckless.

Such conduct was the focus of a recent New York Times Education Life feature on bystander intervention against sexual assault that sparked Taranto’s column. And such cases do result in penalties for accused men. Xiaolu “Peter” Yu, a U.S.-educated Chinese national, is currently suing Vassar College after being expelled on a charge of “nonconsensual sex”—based solely on the claim that the woman, who waited a year to bring her complaint, was too inebriated to give consent when they went back to Yu’s dorm room after a party where both had consumed alcohol.

A particularly striking example of both the definitional creep and the gender-based double standards around “intoxicated rape” occurred at Ohio University last October, when a public sex act caught on camera turned into a rape charge that rocked the campus—but fell apart when a grand jury concluded that the woman did not appear incapable of consent.

The two people involved were 20-year-old students who met at an off-campus bar during Homecoming Weekend. After leaving the bar, they got affectionate in the street; eventually, around 3 a.m., the man began to perform oral sex on the woman while she leaned against the window of a bank. A small crowd gathered, and by morning photos and a video of the pair were all over the internet. Later that day, the young woman went to the police and said that she had no memory of the events and believed she had been sexually assaulted. (The charge was rape since the video showed that the man also penetrated her with his fingers.)

In fact, the photos and the video—which were taken down after the complaint but soon resurfaced—showed what looked like fully consensual, even enthusiastic behavior, with the woman smiling, putting her hand on the back of the man’s head, and flipping her hair. (A female spectator cheered her on with shouts of, “Get it, girl!”) Eyewitnesses confirmed that she seemed to be aware and enjoying herself; at one point the man apparently asked if they should stop, and the woman said no. She left with him afterwards, walking unassisted.

Even though these facts were widely reported, the university community treated the incident as a shocking public rape. The school hosted a student/faculty forum on sexual assault and bystander intervention; students left Post-It notes at the scene of the alleged crime with supportive messages such as “This is not your fault” and “You are strong and brave”; letters to the student newspaper decried the “rape culture” that allowed the woman to be victimized and chided “misguided skeptics” who questioned her victim status.

Joining the fray from outside the campus was Tara Culp-Ressler, a blogger who led the recent charge against Taranto accusing him of blaming rape victims. Back in October, in a post that assailed “victim-blaming” in the Ohio University case, Culp-Ressler noted that a witness who said the encounter looked consensual also mentioned that “both participants were ‘very, very drunk,’” which “fits Ohio University’s official definition of assault.”

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Actually, university policy states that a person cannot consent when “incapacitated.” But, semantics aside, Culp-Ressler seemed oblivious to the fact that both parties were drunk—a perfect illustration of the very attitude Taranto criticizes: assigning unilateral blame to the man when the evidence points to shared responsibility.

Yes, “they were both drunk, so why is he the only one responsible?” is a bad argument when a tipsy man takes advantage of a woman who is passed out or barely aware of what’s going on. Yet in this case, the degree of impairment seems to have been similar on both sides. Is the man presumed to be the attacker because he was the one performing a sexual act on the woman? If a drunk woman was on her knees on a public sidewalk giving oral sex to a drunk man, it is doubtful (to say the least) that he would be readily seen as a victim.

Indeed, many people—including feminists—have a hard time seeing male victimization even in fairly clear-cut cases of alcohol-related sexual coercion. In a 2009 article on the women’s blog The Frisky, Amelia McDonell-Parry quoted a startling passage from psychologist Jennifer Austin Leigh’s book of advice for teenage girls, Laid or Loved?, which included a discussion of female sexual aggressiveness. A boy Leigh had interviewed recounted (and regretted) losing his virginity in front of an audience at a party while extremely intoxicated, when a girl pulled down his pants, stimulated him into an erection and had sex with him. McDonnell-Parry’s only comment was, “Wow. Crazy,” followed by griping about negativity toward sexually assertive girls.

Yet, if sexual assault is defined as drunk sex that one later feels was unwanted, the gender gap may not be that huge: several studies find that male college students are almost as likely as their female peers to have such experiences. In a 2005 survey of 2,400 students at the University of New Hampshire, 11 percent of women and 8 percent of men reported having sex when “too drunk to consent” in the past six months.

To a large extent, the double standards reflect a decidedly pre-feminist, conservative mindset that lingers despite women’s liberation: sex is something men get from women. Many social conservatives would no doubt argue that this assumption is based on natural distinctions and that trying to get rid of it is both futile and harmful. Some of those conservatives, including Taranto, regard the crusade to redefine rape as evidence that women can’t handle sexual freedom: take away traditional norms of male chivalry and female chastity, and young women will end up feeling hurt and used by sex-seeking men and clamoring for special protections.

Actually, there is little evidence that, outside a dedicated core of activists, college women are demanding special protections from drunk or reckless sex. (Reports of women feeling victimized by the campus “hookup culture” are greatly exaggerated.) Yet the activists, for all their feminist rhetoric, are indeed promoting a disturbingly paternalistic view of women. A man who has too much to drink and wakes up in bed with someone he wouldn’t have chosen to sleep with when sober may feel embarrassed or queasy, but he is generally expected to move on and perhaps learn from his mistake. A woman who has the same experience is encouraged to see it as devastating, traumatic—and not her fault.

While young women are infantilized by this attitude, young men are not only demonized but sometimes punished. If there was a victim in the Ohio University case, it was surely the young man who spent days waiting to find out if he would be criminally charged (and who may still face disciplinary action by the university). Sexual offense policies at many schools, such as Stanford University (PDF), explicitly state that sexual activity when there is any degree of intoxication constitutes sexual assault—if one of the parties reports that the activity was “unwanted.”

Colleges have every right to try to discourage excessive drinking and irresponsible sex. But the way to do it is to promote responsible behavior for both women and men. To broadly define all such encounters as sexual assault, nearly always with a male perpetrator and female victim, is to insult women and discriminate against men—and to give ammunition to those who really would turn back the clock to the days when women were “the weaker sex.”